• Is 61:1-2a, 10-11
• Lk 1:46-48, 49-50, 53-54
• 1 Thes 5:16-24
• Jn 1:6-8, 19-28
There is something offensive to many people about Advent and Christmas. It is what Apostle Paul described as a “stumbling block” to Jews and Gentiles alike (1 Cor. 1:18-25). Eastern Orthodox philosopher Richard Swinburne calls it “the scandal of particularity.” It is the belief that God became man at a particular time and in a particular place, and that the God-man, Jesus Christ, is the unique Savior of mankind.
“Belief in the true Incarnation of the Son of God,” the Catechism states, “is the distinctive sign of Christian faith” (par. 463). It’s hardly news that this belief is often disparaged or dismissed by some non-Christians. Far more perplexing are attempts by Christians to deny the mystery of the Incarnation by rejecting the singular character of Jesus of Nazareth.
A few years ago, a Catholic priest in Australia posted online a manuscript he had written intending “to allow the man Jesus to be more authentic, and to make our Catholic religion more relevant.” He glibly dismissed the Incarnation, writing, “God is big. Real big. No human being can ever be God. And Jesus was a human being. It is as simple as that!” He then took this denial to its logical conclusion. “For a Christian,” he wrote, “to state that the fullness of redemption and salvation is to be found in Jesus Christ is not an acceptable statement for other faiths or religious traditions. And it is offensive to proclaim it as universal truth.”
Yes, it is offensive. And it is also true! Today’s readings present two great saints who not only proclaimed the truth about Jesus Christ but also gave offense—and continue to give offense—by being faithful to Him. They share in the “scandal of particularity,” for they are closely united to Jesus, by both love and by blood.
The first is John the Baptist, who is always a central figure during Advent. Today’s Gospel reading places a very Johannine emphasis on testimony, or witness. The Greek word—martyria—for “testify” or “witness” is also the root word for “martyr,” and it appears over 25 times in the Fourth Gospel, as well as several times in the Book of Revelation.
This testimony “to the light” is a sure declaration of truth by one who has seen what he gives witness to. The Apostle John, in his first epistle, wrote about “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life,” and then stated, “we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us.” He had seen Jesus Christ in person. But John the Baptist had not only seen and known the Savior, he had recognized him while still in the womb (Lk. 1:41). He gave witness not only by word but also by deed: first, through preaching and baptism, then through martyrdom (Mk. 6:17-29).
The second saint is the Theotokos, the Blessed Virgin Mary. She causes scandal to some by her humility and her willingness to accept, in faith, an astounding message from God. She is a stumbling block to many because she, a lowly Jewish maiden, is the Mother of God; her womb was the Tabernacle of the Most High. Her proclamation, the Magnificat—part of it heard today during the responsorial—is the testimony of the perfect disciple: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”
Many people believe that religious doctrine—especially dogmas about Jesus Christ—leads to narrow-mindedness, bigotry, and even violence. In reality, it is the wellspring of joy, as Mary’s canticle amply demonstrates. It is not enough to simply believe, or to proclaim—we are also called to rejoice and to worship. “Rejoice always,” Paul writes to the Christians in Thessalonica, “Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks.” Why? “For this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”
Such is the joyful, particular scandal of Advent.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the December 14, 2008, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)